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France26 February 2008

Bill to reinforce protection for journalists’ sources discussed with justice ministry

Reporters Without Borders met with justice ministry officials yesterday to discuss a draft government bill to reinforce protection for the confidentiality of journalists’ sources. While welcoming the improvements contained in the bill, which is to be published in mid-March after the Council of State has given its view, the press freedom organisation voiced its reservations about the restrictions to be placed on this protection.

Under the draft law, the judicial authorities would be able to violate the confidentiality of journalists sources “on an exceptional basis” and “in the framework set by the law” and only when the “nature and gravity of the offence justify it.” Reporters Without Borders thinks these provisions are too vague and would allow investigators and judges to restrict the law’s application.

Reporters Without Borders said the restrictions on the protection of sources needed to be more specific. The organisation would like them to be better defined and more protective for journalists, as they are in a Belgian law, which says “journalists may only be forced to identify [their] sources of information (...) if they are likely to prevent offences being committed that pose a serious threat to a person’s physical safety” or that are acts of terrorism.

The Belgian law also says that the information must of “crucial importance for preventing these offences from being committed.”

The French draft law would also reinforce provisions concerning searches of journalists’ homes. A judge would have to present and the journalists would be able to object to the seizure of files, including computer files. If an objection was made, the files would be placed under seal and the decision on whether or not the seizure could go ahead would be taken by an independent, specialist judge at a hearing at which both the journalist and investigating judge were present.

The draft bill, which is to be incorporated into article 2 of an 1881 law on press freedom, would guarantee the confidentiality of sources for all journalists as broadly defined in the labour law. This definition includes online media employees. Reporters Without Borders pointed out to the justice ministry that it does not however include bloggers or local press contributors.

Reporters Without Borders also proposed that the new law should be accompanied by specific training in its application for police and gendarmerie investigators.

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